From Bench Top to Blackboard: An Overview


It's (nearly) unanimous: We need to do a better job teaching math and science to our children. It's one of only a very few issues that almost everyone can agree on. Sure, people may differ on the value of teaching art and music, or on whether math and science should be placed in a cultural context or taught using innovative, experiential approaches. But except for a lunatic fringe, everyone thinks our children--and the adults they will soon become--need to know more about science.

The benefits of science are manifold and manifest: intellectual enrichment; technological advancement; the liberation of the mind from superstition; an increased food supply; environmental remediation and preservation; economic growth; the profound pleasure that comes from the meticulous contemplation of nature and a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Young people who don't know science are impoverished. We are failing them.

Indeed, we are failing many of them. Study after study shows how little science our students know, not to mention their parents and--appallingly--a few of their science teachers.

Why are we failing so badly at something almost everyone agrees is so important? Every other politically tinged issue--every one I can think of, anyway--suffers from a lack of consensus about the intended ends. Not so, science education: There, more or less everyone agrees on the ends; what people disagree on is the means. How do we teach our children science? More to the point, how do we teach our teachers to teach our children science?

The scientific universe can be divided into two camps: practicing scientists and pedagogues. Members of the former camp are produced by graduate departments of mathematics, chemistry, etc., and reside (mostly) at universities and colleges. Members of the latter camp arise mostly (although not exclusively) from education departments and enjoy careers as teachers in primary and secondary schools. There are, of course, exceptions, but in general there's little overlap between the two camps, little communication, and few opportunities to move between the camps. That's too bad.

Undoubtedly, there's much to be gained from cross-pollination--in both directions. But at Next Wave we're especially interested in the movement of practicing scientists into teaching. Next Wave is, after all, explicitly for scientists exploring the full range of their career options.

It's not all that uncommon for scientists--graduate students, postdocs, military scientists, and industrial researchers--to make the move into teaching. But it's not nearly common enough. There are exceptions, but in most fields more scientists are being produced by graduate science departments than will ever manage to find permanent employment in science research and higher education. That's not necessarily a bad thing: Scientific research is outstanding preparation for many jobs, and many scientists--Next Wave?s editors among them--derive great satisfaction from their post-research careers. Still, more needs to be done to lower the barriers between science and other fields and, where necessary, to give scientists interested in making a switch a little boost. That's why Next Wave exists.

More also needs to be done to lower the barriers between science research and science teaching. And that's why we're running this feature.

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